Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

How Did 1900 Asheville Happen?: A Retrospective in Four Parts–1850-1900

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“Land of the Sky” Asheville, post-1929. Text on reverse: Situated upon a high mountain table-land 2,300 feet above the sea, and commanding a sweeping panorama of mile-high mountains, Asheville occupies perhaps the most beautiful setting of any city in America. The drifting clouds touching the summits of the mountains and the many days of the sunshine, have given to the Asheville region its distinctive title, “The Land of the Sky.” North Carolina Postcard Collection (P052), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

This post is a Table of Contents guide to what–from time to time over the next while–will become a series of four retrospective posts, each focusing on a topic central to the larger question of how “1900 Asheville” came to be the modern city it was, in such a relatively short time.

These retrospective posts will be interwoven with  previous and ongoing ones on the longer-wave history of Asheville, using three families as a lens: my paternal grandparents Asbury and Ella Whisnant, maternal grandparents Pierce and Pearl Rudisill, and parents John and Mary Neal Whisnant.

NOTE TO READERS, July 28, 2022: As it turned out, my plans for the series of four posts listed here changed, and I posted only the one indicated by a link below. You can find all subsequent posts (of which by now there have been more than 40) by clicking on “Blog Posts” in the toolbar at the top of any one of them. I have not yet done the one on the infrastructural history of Asheville, but do intend to do it when a suitable moment comes.  Some may consider “infrastructure” an off-putting term, but what it refers to is both important and interesting: when and how did the essential modernizing services (the inter-city railroad and the inner-city street railway, street paving, water supply, sewers, telephones, etc.),come to Asheville? Because my grandfather Asbury Whisnant came to Asheville in 1900, found a job on the street railway and kept it for nearly 50 years, aspects of that infrastructural entity figure in several already completed posts: (1) (2) (3) (4).

The Four Parts:

As items in this list are posted, they will become clickable links, and will be interlinked with previous relevant posts:

Retrospective I: A Primer on the Sad Truths of Slavery in Asheville, Buncombe County and Western North Carolina

Retrospective II: The Infrastructure Boom–1870-1900

Retrospective III: Railroads, a Tunnel and Convict Labor

Retrospective IV: George Willis Pack: Philanthropist and Progressive Modernizer

Three Mileposts on the Route to Moderization:

At different points or stages in their histories, cities thrive and grow (or don’t, or slide downward) for a variety of reasons, at different rates, with different outcomes.

And so it was with Asheville.  In prior posts, I have briefly attended to several  early growth factors and dynamics, such as greed for land and the perennial influx of people and money to and through Asheville.

When the Civil War ended, says Asheville historian Nan Chase, the town (hardly a city yet) was

Bank Hotel on Court Square, Asheville, ca. 1860

Bank Hotel on Court Square, Asheville, ca. 1860

a back water . . . , a throwback to isolated rusticity and a want of advancement. Visitors . . . encountered a muddy public square crowded with wild hogs and lowing, long-horned oxen pulling wagons. Corn whiskey flowed freely and at night the square was too unsavory for polite company.

Twenty years later, when Christian Reid’s  romantic local color novel named the

Eagle Hotel (before 1900). Pack Memorial Public Library.

Eagle Hotel (before 1900). Pack Memorial Public Library.

town and its surround The Land of the Sky, the novel’s fictional group of lowland visitors found the mountains themselves sublime and  enchanting, but mountaineers–and the town itself (popn. about 1600)–a decidedly mixed bag.  On a carriage ride through the countryside, they see local people who either confirm or deny long-established hillbilly / mountaineer stereotypes.  At dinner at the fashionable Eagle Hotel (more

elegant than the Bank) they are careful to dress, talk and behave in such a way that no one

Boarding Pass for Western North Carolina Railroad, December 21, 1876. NCpedia.

Boarding Pass for Western North Carolina Railroad, December 21, 1876. NCpedia.1

will mistake them for locals.  And in any case, the Western North Carolina Railroad was pushing its way toward Hickory Nut Gap.  And when it light finally entered both ends of the 1,800-foot Swannanoa Tunnel in early 1879, trainloads of modernizing elements chugged and smoked their way toward Asheville.

By the time Asbury Whisnant arrived in 1900, the railroad had been there for twenty years, and Asheville had become (as a prior post said) “a node of modernity” with classy hotels, streetcars, telephones, daily newspapers, a large public library and a Grand Opera House, and some 14,000 people.  The hogs and mud were long since gone from Court Square (renamed Pack Square

Pack Square around 1900, with Vance Monument in middle and streetcar tracks in foreground. Pack Memorial Public Library.

Pack Square around 1900, with Vance Monument in middle and streetcar tracks in foreground. Pack Memorial Public Library.

for philanthropist and progressive modernizer George Willis Pack, who arrived in 1884), and Asheville was on a modernizing roll.

My hope is that these five retrospective posts will help to give further concreteness to the process through which that modernizing roll took form.

Notes
  1. Three years after I posted this Asheville Junction post, I received the following extraordinarily detailed comment from Mr. Kevin White on the signer of this pass (W. W. Rollins): “Interesting boarding pass issued by W. W. Rollins, who was also Asheville’s Postmaster for decades after the Civil War. During the War Rollins had served among the Field & Staff officers of the 29th Regiment of North Carolina Troops, but, he soon deserted, which was most unusual for an officer, who always had the option of resigning his commission. And not only did Rollins desert, he went over to the enemy, and through the last several years of the War served in the North Carolina (Union) units raised in East Tennessee under the leadership of Kirk, who for many years after the War was the bogeyman for mountain children, as his command was notorious in these parts for their raids into western NC. Rollins was rewarded by the Republicans after the War with the Postmastership of Asheville, a job he held for the next thirty-five years, during which time no Ashevillean of socially acceptable Confederate principles would speak to him. Rollins built a house on the north side of Hillside Street at the corner of Mount Clare (then North Street) and called it “Witchwood”. This was adjacent to the old hanging grounds. Today “Witchwood Acres” subdivision is on the grounds. Across the street, on the south side of Hillside, was the home of (former) Confederate Colonel James M. Ray, commander of the 60th NC, a locally raised regiment, during the war. Rollins and Ray were across the street neighbors for more than thirty years, and never exchanged one word.” I do not know Mr. White, but would like to. If you know him, or know someone who does, please let me know.[]

9 thoughts on “How Did 1900 Asheville Happen?: A Retrospective in Four Parts–1850-1900

  1. Kevin White

    Interesting boarding pass issued by W. W. Rollins, who was also Asheville’s Postmaster for decades after the Civil War. During the War Rollins had served among the Field & Staff officers of the 29th Regiment of North Carolina Troops, but, he soon deserted, which was most unusual for an officer, who always had the option of resigning his commission. And not only did Rollins desert, he went over to the enemy, and through the last several years of the War served in the North Carolina (Union) units raised in East Tennessee under the leadership of Kirk, who for many years after the War was the bogeyman for mountain children, as his command was notorious in these parts for their raids into western NC. Rollins was rewarded by the Republicans after the War with the Postmastership of Asheville, a job he held for the next thirty-five years, during which time no Ashevillean of socially acceptable Confederate principles would speak to him. Rollins built a house on the north side of Hillside Street at the corner of Mount Clare (then North Street) and called it “Witchwood”. This was adjacent to the old hanging grounds. Today “Witchwood Acres” subdivision is on the grounds. Across the street, on the south side of Hillside, was the home of (former) Confederate Colonel James M. Ray, commander of the 60th NC, a locally raised regiment, during the war. Rollins and Ray were across the street neighbors for more than thirty years, and never exchanged one word.

  2. David Whisnant Post author

    Hello, Kevin: I am completely embarrassed to be, just now after nearly 3 years, encountering your excellent comment on W. W. Rollins. How I missed it at the time you sent it, I do not know, but what I am going to do now is to entire your entire comment as a (credited to you) footnote to the the blog post. And please excuse my inattention. I hope you are still available. If you are, please send me an email (dewhisnant@gmail.com). In the meantime, how do you happen to know the information you relate here? I would be most interested to know.

  3. David Whisnant Post author

    Kevin: A query to you: I looked again at the pass, and W. W. Rollins signed it in December 1876 as President of the WNCRR. How does this square with his having been (per your comment) Postmaster in Asheville for 35 years? Thanks. David Whisnant

  4. Kevin White

    Hi. Thank you for your kind notice. When I stated Rollins was Asheville’s Postmaster for 35 years I thought I was relying on J. Preston Arthur’s 1912 “History of WNC”. (My entire original comment was made from memory). Or perhaps a more recent published local history. Since hearing from you I did some swift cursory checking and I was wrong. Rollins was from Madison County, one of the first students at the predecessor of Mars Hill College, well connected in Republican politics, and apparently a state senator. When Governor Holden instigated the “Kirk-Holden War” he apparently first turned to Rollins to lead the military end of it, but Rollins refused, so Holden turned to Rollins’ old commander, Kirk, for this episode that got him impeached. Rollins apparently did not become postmaster until 1897, and as of the 1910 census still held the position. I am sure that I first learned of Rollins’ desertion and defection to “the enemy” from the 29th NC from “North Carolina Troops”, a multi-volume effort of the state’s Department of Archives and History, started in the 1960s and I think, at last, completed. Colonel Ray’s house still stands at the corner of Hillside and Mount Clare, with “Witchwood Acres” across the street. I grew up in Montford and knew this area pretty well. Bob Terrell, longtime columnist for the Citizen-Times, lived in Witchwood, as did several of my school friends. The old hanging grounds were mentioned in some published local history, located where Hillside and Mount Clare intersect. The disharmony between neighbors Ray and Rollins I probably gleaned from the Citizen, as well as the perpetual snubbing of Rollins by all locals who were aware of his background and who were not Republicans. I’ll try to include a few interesting links on Rollins. Thanks again.

    https://www.newspapers.com/clip/9679531/senator-w-w-rollins-to-be-made/

    http://michaelchardy.blogspot.com/2017/05/william-wallace-rollins-confederate.html

    Rollins was president of the Western Division of the NC Railroad in the 1870s, during the time when the line from Icard to Asheville was being built. He must have been VERY well connected to get this position, and to work out the deal to lease convicts (mostly black, an unknown number of whom died) to dig the Swannannoa Tunnel.

  5. Judith H. Shea

    Does anyone remember that in the Witchwood section, there was a very large house that was all built around the theme of witches hats? My great-grandmother’s sister, Arixene (Zenie) Southgate (Smith) Woolsey, and her husband Col.Charles Woolsey moved to Asheville with all their money and plans for glory in helping out the town with their largess around 1885 or so . I have it all written down… Zenie cultivated flowers, particularly chrysanthemums. She would have flower shows and the town people up for for nibbles and beverages. There were events for children and for young people, and game nights for the grown ups. And once in n a while a ball!

    I was able to get many articles about the events from the local historical Society, using Newspapers.com and they could maybe help you too. I think these events lasted 15 or 20 years maybe less. Col. Woolsey was in bad health and died relatively young in around 1905? I’m bad with dates and I’m lying on my back nursing my arthritis. I just read your stories of the area and when I saw that Zenie was not mentioned, I thought she would be rolling in her grave thinking that she has been forgotten!! She and her daughter Alice wound up in England, Alice married to a someone “close to the crown”.

    But it was quite something when it was going on. The military officers, South & North, who were enemies and lived across the street from each other but didn’t talk – the “Northern” one of those WAS Colonel Charles Woolsey, not whomever was cited in your text. They moved from a huge house in New York on the river, after two of their young children had died for a new start in Asheville with little Alice. ( Alice and my grandmother were cousins the same age and grew up fond of each other.)

    So they built that huge house with the witch’s hat theme, and they filled it full of curios they had gotten while traveling around the world. There were two closed in porches where they would serve the refreshments and the curiosities would be on view. Let me know if you would like more info!

  6. Kevin White

    Hi Ms. Shea – I read with interest your comment. You are, of course, correct, about Colonel Woolsey and his wife. It appears my original post was about, oh, maybe 1/3 correct. Shows what happens when you work from memory, with a memory like mine. I’ll ‘fess up and admit it seems I might have mislocated the public hanging spot too, which I think was about a block further south, on the southwest side of the intersection of Woodrow and Mount Clare (which was East Street then). My apologies for misrepresenting your family history. Witchwood house was long gone before my time., which is a shame. I’d love to hear anything you would be willing to share. Woolsey Dip must be part of the story.

  7. David Whisnant Post author

    Hi, Kevin: Thank you for your reply to Ms. Shea. It remains an embarrassment and frustration for me that I was not ever able–amidst the press of other blog topics–to get done everything I had promised there. Not to make excuses for myself, I will comment briefly on the others promised:

    Retrospective I: A Primer on the Sad Truths of Slavery in Asheville, Buncombe County and Western North Carolina

    Retrospective II: The Infrastructure Boom–1870-1900

    Retrospective III: Railroads, a Tunnel and Convict Labor

    Retrospective IV: George Willis Pack: Philanthropist and Progressive Modernizer

    On I: I did do a post on that general topic, which I think will have to do for the present, especially since by now so much else has been written by others (John Inscoe, of course, and Wilma Dunaway). Also, Anne and I recently finished a 4-year-long study on the Sandburg site for NPS, which has been published and is online. It deals with the century-long (1830s-1940s) Black history at the site: Black Lives and Whitened Stories. It is online at https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/DownloadFile/659265.

    On II: I still want to do that one, because those infrastructural changes (street paving, water supply and distribution, telephones, etc.) were so important, and I know of nothing extensive that has been written about them. (Maybe I just missed it?)

    On III: Since I promised this one, others have done a lot of good work on that (Dan Pierce at UNCA, Kevin Kehrberg and Jeff Keith at Warren Wilson, others) that it doesn’t seem so pressing now, and I am not sure what I could do that would add much to what these others have done.

    On IV: I later discovered a really long, good piece on him done by the former head of the UNCA collection, Helen Wykle. Her piece doesn’t do everything, but it does a lot. Actually, I wanted to do a series of pieces on the “parachuting moguls” of Asheville (Pack, Grove, Vanderbilt, and one other whose name escapes me at the moment).

    Anyway, in this case, my reach somewhat exceeded my grasp. I hope to get back to some of that at some point, but I still have several Enka posts to go before that.

    Best to you, and thank you again.

    David

  8. Kevin White

    Hi David – I’ve enjoyed your posts tremendously. There never seem to be enough hours in the rapidly passing days. My mom worked in the Nylon Lab 1961-77, and we got the Enka Voice in the mail. Before she had a car she rode one of the fleet of independent contractor operated buses back and forth. These buses fanned out all over Asheville I think. I’m glad to see the Swannannoa Tunnel attract more scholarship, and Pack is a fascinating person. I look forward to reading your work on Carl Sandburg (and Christopher Memminger?). I am confident you will reach all these topics and more as time permits, and I anticipate an informative report from you. Thank you for all these efforts.

  9. Asheville Junction (David Whisnant)

    Thanks, Kevin! You don’t still have any of the 1960+ Enka Voice copies, do you? I have not seen any past 1950 (Duke U’s collection). During my Jr high and hs years, I sold newspapers 5:30-7:00 a.m. at the side gate to people getting off/on those buses, which served riders from all over Buncombe, Madison, Haywood, etc. Our work on “Sandburg”— really the Sandburg *site* except to establish that he was a got-together focus for the site. Anne and I wrote about the period long before he arrived (1838ff), focusing on Memminger and other Lowcountry arrivals to Flat Rock and post-Memminger owners of the house (Connemara, it was later called) and site (Little Charleston of the Mountains, they fancied it to be). You will probably like the result (Black Lives and Whitened Stories . . . ). Please stay in touch; I enjoy your comments. David

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